RWW Soundings

Nameless Daffodils, Commas, and Passion:
Thirty Years of Editor/Author Work with Judith Kitchen

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Across my first half-dozen years with The Georgia Review—I came to the journal in 1983—my editorial dealings with Judith Kitchen were occasional and secondary. Judith was “just” a poet in those days, with her reviewing and essay writing (and novel writing) still ahead. Stanley W. Lindberg was the editor and was already an acquaintance of Judith’s—I had met her once, at Bread Loaf in 1981—so her direct submission communications were through him in those days, though Stan always conferred with me about poems of interest (and usually about stories and essays). So, before we brought out Judith’s “Perennials” (Spring 1984), which became the title poem for what proved to be her only collection, Stan and I had a spirited exchange with her on several large and small points.

Her response was forceful, whether she was agreeing or disagreeing—so much so that when, much later, my staff and I were putting together selections of Georgia Review correspondence for a sixtieth-anniversary feature, we included her letter and the poem. You can get the whole story from that issue—Spring 2007—but here I want to mention just one element that became a classic memory for the three of us. “Perennials” is about the persistence and insistence of memories, the ways they return to us beyond our control or complete understanding, and a variety of flowers provide the recurrent motif for the theme. Late in the poem, Judith mentions “nameless daffodils,” and Stan and I agreed that “nameless” seemed superfluous—to which opinion Judith responded thusly:

I can see the point about the “nameless”—but see no reason not to keep it, either. Nameless Chinese. Nameless jack o’ lanterns. Nameless daffodils. Because they are nameless, even though they have a generic name, each one coming up or blooming as it does, in the crowd. Only individual if picked and allowed to wilt on the dashboard, allowed to become the memory. The rush of memory, that’s what I’m after, the things that flood without name, merely by association. That vast past that resides in us, amorphous right up to the moment when it is not.

Touché, and touché. In this instance, Judith had her sensitive and articulate way with us. But that did not prevent Stan and me from having some fun with her when next we met—at an AWP conference in the days when the crowd measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Review assistant editor David Ingle, who wrote the commentary for that Spring 2007 letters feature, contacted Judith and got her version of our prank:

Kitchen says that they handed her “a very ugly cardboard box . . .  I opened it to find a bunch of ugly dried daffodils (the whole staff had ‘wilted’ them on their dashboards to be faithful to the poem), and each daffodil had a name tag tied to its stem, with the name of a poet written on the name tag. One, as I recall, had “Dancer” on one side of the tag and “Dance” on the other, just proving the point that it was hard to tell one from the other! Would that editor/author agreement and disagreement could always involve such fun.

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By the late 1980s Stan Lindberg had promoted me from assistant to associate editor and had put the book review section of GR under my charge. Peter Stitt, who had written quarterly essay-reviews of new poetry volumes for us since Stan’s arrival in 1977, signed off in 1987 to become the first (and as of this writing still only) editor of the newly founded Gettysburg Review. We “tried out” a number of potential replacements over the next couple of years, settling in 1991 on twice-yearly appearances by Fred Chappell and Judith Kitchen. “Ol’ Fred” did yeoman’s work for us until 1997, at which time he stepped away to devote his time to other efforts. Judith stayed on, and on, offering her sensitive and brilliant insights quite literally until the end: she made the final changes in her final essay-review, “Da Capo al Coda” (Winter 2014), only days before her passing on 6 November 2014.

Such invigorating editorial tussles Judith and I had, across those twenty-five years and some fifty major pieces of writing on contemporary English-language poetry. I’m smart, and I have my well-honed and well-earned notions about how poetry (and poetry criticism) can be written most movingly, effectively, and distinctly; Judith was smarter, and had her notions. So, over the many years we increasingly embraced our at-first-uncomfortable repartee, learning that—paradoxically—if we respected one another’s refining gestures more and stood up more stoutly for our own, the end result for The Georgia Review’s readers would be the finest possible discussion of language’s pinnacle achievement, poetry, which is equally composed of John Donne’s “gold to airy thinness beat” and Walt Whitman’s “mossy scabs of the worm fence,” standing ready both to salve individual hearts and to harass governments.

I seldom took overt exception to the opinions Judith expressed about a given poet, though occasionally I did think she was over- or underrating someone. In such instances I was likely to ask her to provide additional commentary in support of her views, and she was always (as far as I can recall) willing to do so. Similarly, I rarely found occasion to criticize her chosen framework, the essay element of any given essay-review, because this was where her greatness showed with extra clarity: Judith did not simply review a group of books in succession and then slap on a title, nor did she ever give the impression of shoehorning a volume into some preconceived hunk of prose. Rather, she read new collection after new collection after new collection, allowing each to butt up against all she already knew and had thought about poetry; then, across weeks of rereading, she would find something new emerging, something born from the coupling of her past experience with a new experience suggested by the interweaving of aspects of the latest volumes. She would scan some fifty books per semiannual assignment (and who knows how many others for other purposes and pleasures in her life), fully read about half of those, and end up with four or five or six that taught her some lessons she would then teach to us.

Low to the ground of language was where most of our revisionary jousting took place—down there amongst the pronouns and the participles, the verbs and the proverbs, the emphatic repetitions and the redundancies, the whiches and the thats, and all manner of punctilious punctuation marks, both present and absent. The number and concentration of these various contentions waxed and waned over the years, each of us likely thinking now and then—I never verified this with Judith—he or she had finally convinced the other that either/or and tick-tock really were what was needed, not those lame cousins neither/nor and tock-tick. But of course the same details and subtleties would always rear up again—some like squirming puppies, others like writhing snakes—to remind us we were always playing, together, a blessed and complicated game against a complex and wily compatriot: language.

One of our fond late battles, never concluded, involved that most formidable of linguistic foes: it. In the past decade or so I have become, and remain, actively committed to every possible deletion of this insidious two-letter creature, whose presence both as a stand-alone pronoun and in various passive phrases has been burgeoning in our age of electronic rush, diminished discrimination, and diminished care. Judith always wished to, and did, argue with me about my anti-it zeal, going so far as to seek out and send to me various arcane definitions and explanations of the many “acceptable” uses for this tiny word that, for me, is usually worth about as much as another common word with which it—ah-hah!—rhymes.

Such was our ongoing feud about this Hamlet-worthy matter—“To it or not to it?”—that I conjured it (hmmm . . . referent “feud” or “matter”?) when ending my remarks during an AWP conference session honoring Judith in 2014. Having reached the bottom of page four of my script, which put me right around 1300 words, I harkened back two pages to where I had quoted Dr. Johnson’s great chestnut about Paradise Lost—“None ever wished it longer”—to say, as an inside joke directed at Judith in her back-row seat, “Excepting the one quoted from Samuel Johnson, my remarks here concluding contain not a single instance of the word it.”

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Not automatically or easily constructed, that it-less stretch, but the writing and the writer and the listeners were, I believed, all the better for my having made the effort. Judith Kitchen’s poetry essay-reviews in The Georgia Review—those 800 Review pages discussing some 250 books across a quarter century—were by no means it-less in a literal way, but metaphorically they most certainly were: born of Judith’s passion for reading, thinking about, talking about, and writing about poetry . . . poked and prodded and supposedly polished by my own passions for the same ings . . . and then batted and patted back, forth, and back between our simultaneously at-odds and at-one perspectives, those essays became more durable and more fragile—as do, I feel, all our most genuine and valuable expressions of love.

Stephen Corey is the author of four full-length collections of poetry, the latest being There Is No Finished World (White Pine Press, 2003), and six chapbooks. His poems, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in dozens of periodicals and anthologies, among them The American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Yellow Silk, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, and The ‘Poetry’ Anthology, 1912-2002. He has co-edited three books in as many genres, most recently (with Warren Slesinger) Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001). He has worked as a literary editor for nearly 35 years, first with The Devil’s Millhopper from 1976-1983, and since then with The Georgia Review, where he currently serves as editor. He lives in Athens, Georgia and serves as Editor-in-Residence in the Rainier Writing Workshop.

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